The Army men of Buffalo Soldiers are not teddy bears. Stationed in West Germany in 1989, they are scammers, schemers, screw-ups -- in other words, people you might recognize. This dark comedy, uneven though it is, recalls the anti-establishment cinema of the late '60s and early '70s, movies such as Catch-22 and M*A*S*H that saw the military not as a pantheon of generic heroes but instead as a microcosm of society's own follies and ironies.
The antihero is Ron Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), a clerk in a supply battalion who tells us that like many of his comrades-in-arms he chose the service because it looked good next to jail. But their tenure also coincides with the tail end of the Cold War, and in Stuttgart there's not much to do. "War is hell," admits Elwood, "but peace is fucking boring." So Elwood works the black market, where his principal occupation is cooking Turkish morphine into heroin whose ready buyers include the dudes driving American tanks.
Buffalo Soldiers, based on a Robert Stone novel, follows Elwood as he wades in over his head on a big score and falls for Robin (Anna Paquin), a sensitive kid whose dad is Sgt. Lee (Scott Glenn), a ball-buster with a hard-on for Elwood.
Dark comedy is hard to do, and too often Buffalo Soldiers falls just on the unfunny side of things. Directed by Gregor Jordan, it's paced a bit too leisurely for the kind of film it wants to be; it takes an hour for the plot to really kick in, and a framing device -- Elwood's terrified dreams of falling -- feels laborious and tacked-on.
Yet the performances are mostly competent: Phoenix nicely conveys Elwood's restlessness and penchant for overestimating his own resources, while the wiry Glenn is a calmly menacing heavy. Reliable Ed Harris, unfortunately, is miscast as a comically ineffectual colonel.
And Buffalo Soldiers can be mordantly funny, as during a drug-induced tank rampage, or when Lee forces Elwood to murder his beloved (if illicitly obtained) Beamer. There's a human scale to its heroes and villains -- everyone is flawed -- and even a touch of poignancy, with one character lamenting the loss of the military comradeship experienced by his dad's World War II generation.
The film's distributor, Miramax, delayed its theatrical release nearly two years in the wake of Sept. 11. Some might find its irreverence at odds with our militarized times. On the contrary, it's a film that benefits from going against the grain.